“The Green Miles”

“Kentucky was devastated for decades by mountaintop removal. Now scientists have figured out a way to undo the damage — one tree at a time.”

“t looked like a scene of wanton destruction, all the more shocking for happening on federal land under the watchful eye of a U.S. forester. Two snarling yellow bulldozers plowed up and down a hillside, pushing over anything in their path. Shrubs and small trees snapped under the dozers’ force like kindling. On the barren ground where the machines had been, cold December rain pooled in muddy tire tracks. A single young oak that had been spared seemed, if anything, to accent the mayhem.

“You folks have boots? Want to get muddy?” That was Patrick Angel, leader of this early-winter tour in 2018, occurring just hours before what would become the nation’s longest government shutdown brought his work to a frustrating halt. Angel is a gregarious, grizzled scientist who has made his career with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, a little-celebrated unit in the Department of the Interior. For 25 years, he oversaw the process that may represent humans’ best attempt to date at total annihilation of land: strip-mining and mountaintop-removal mining of coal. He told coal companies to do one thing when they were done with a site: pack the remaining rubble as tightly as possible, and plant grass — the only type of plant he trusted to hold the ground in place.

Then, in 2002, Angel realized something was very wrong. The big, productive, life-nurturing forests of Appalachia weren’t just slow to come back; they weren’t coming back, period. Nearly 1.5 million acres, an area larger than Delaware, that should have had trees were little more than weedy fields. It was an ecological disaster, and Angel had helped create it. “There’s a tremendous amount of guilt,” he says.”

Gabriel Popkin reports for the Washington Post Magazine February 13, 2020, with videos and photos by Jahi Chikwendiu.